The immediate future of New Japan Pro-Wrestling is in the balance at Dominion on June 7.
In a match for the vacant IWGP World Heavyweight Championship, the most prestigious wrestling title in the industry, the famed Kazuchika Okada faces off against Shingo Takagi.
Okada is a five-time IWGP Heavyweight Champion. At 720 days, he holds the lengthiest reign in the title’s history, and he is synonymous with greatness throughout the industry. If he wins, this will be his first run as champ since the title was rebranded to the IWGP World Heavyweight Championship. And with Will Ospreay vacating the title due to a neck injury, it certainly would make sense for Okada to reclaim his spot atop the company.
Takagi makes a compelling case to be the new face of New Japan. He has wrestled around the world, but his only singles titles in New Japan are two runs with the NEVER Openweight Championship. He adds value to every match, though he did not originally appear to be a contender for the company’s top belt. In a more customary, non-pandemic era of pro wrestling, it is unlikely that he would have received this main-event opportunity. Yet the 17-year pro now has the chance to do what once seemed unthinkable, pivoting from a valued spot as the opponent, and with a win, attaining wrestling’s most lucrative prize by becoming the attraction. Winning this match changes his legacy, and Takagi is well aware of what is at stake.
“I have worked very hard, physically and mentally, to get to this match,” said Takagi, speaking through a translator. “This is the opportunity of my career, my chance to make this moment real and win the championship.”
Dominion traditionally takes place on June 6 but will be held this year on June 7 due to an extension of the state of emergency in Osaka. The best-case scenario for New Japan is to have a breathtaking match, followed by a six-month title reign for the champion that leads into Wrestle Kingdom 16 in January. But there are uncertainties entering the Dominion main event. Okada is recovering from battling COVID, so it is unknown how that could affect his in-ring performance, and it remains to be seen whether the company wants to place its full faith in Takagi as champion, especially when Okada is available to fill that role.
2021 has been extremely eventful for Takagi. The 37-year-old has become a worldwide commodity in New Japan. After establishing himself across the globe, most notably in Dragon Gate, he entered New Japan in October of 2018. He immediately became an integral player, joining the Tetsuya Naito-led Los Ingobernables de Japon faction. Months later, his violent brand of physicality received an incredibly enhanced platform when he went undefeated in the first nine matches of the Best of the Super Juniors tournament until ultimately falling in the finals to Will Ospreay. Their tournament finale stands as a genuine example of a thrilling, gripping, back-and-forth pro wrestling match, and it became the site where Takagi cemented himself as a legitimate presence in New Japan.
“That match gave people a strong impression of who I am,” said Takagi. “That was also my first main event at Sumo Arena, and my chance to show people a great performance in New Japan. I showed a strong will in that match, and that determination is what I need to show again at Dominion.”
Takagi’s defining characteristic is his fighting spirit. He brings a style both unique and endearing every time he steps into the ring through his unwavering intensity.
Despite losing key matches this year—like the New Japan Cup Finals to Ospreay, as well as dropping the Openweight title earlier this year to Hiroshi Tanahashi, and then falling short in a world title match against Ospreay—interest in Takagi has never waned. Even with the defeats, his popularity continues to surge. And while other world titles, like WWE, are more famous, there is no greater wrestling title than the one with IWGP engraved into it. A title win for Takagi will please fans still frustrated by EVIL’s failed 48-day title reign last summer, as well as forever legitimize Takagi’s standing in the industry.
“I am focused on being champion,” said Takagi. “Honestly, I have a bit of an inferiority complex. I’m smaller as a heavyweight, so I need to be different than other heavyweights. I am thick and fit, but I can also move faster. I need to be mobile. For this upcoming match, I thought about how I felt after the Ospreay match. I was genuinely sad to come so close but not win. I have worked a long time to reach this point, and this is now my chance.”
Standing 5’10”, Takagi revealed that he initially wore his trademark Mohawk hairstyle just to appear taller.
“I was trying to get taller, but my growth stopped,” said Takagi. “If I wanted to be a pro wrestler, I thought I needed to be 6’0”. That’s why I have a Mohawk, and that’s why I make it so big.
“It’s all part of my journey. I have had a long road to get to New Japan, so this means a lot more than one match to me. It’s been 17 years since I started in this business, but I knew it was for since I was 14 when I fell in love wrestling. I saw wrestling and I still remember thinking, ‘That’s what men need to do.’ I even told my teachers at school I was going to New Japan, All Japan, or FMW. Later, I got into Animal Hamaguchi’s dojo. Now it is my chance to prove who I am against Okada.”
Takagi and Okada may appear to be opposites, but their paths to New Japan share a healthy amount of connective tissue. Okada was schooled in the old-school teachings of the craft at Toryumon, a professional wrestling school run by Ultimo Dragon. In the summer of 2004, Dragon Gate was founded, carrying on with the principles of Toryumon, which is where Takagi learned those same principles.
“We are both from that Toryumon group, which is something we will always share,” said Takagi. “There are some differences. I graduated high school, trained at Animal Hamaguchi’s dojo, and then I went to Toryumon. Okada moved to Mexico right after I got into Toryumon, and then he was taught by Ultimo Dragon. My main teacher was Genichiro Tenryu. So we have a similar training, but different styles.
“Okada’s style has a lot of influence from Mexico, and my fighting style doesn’t. We both have that Dragon-style, but you see it in very different ways.”
That clash of philosophies will be present in the main event of Dominion. Takagi is drawing back into wrestling history for some additional inspiration, sharing that one of the most meaningful matches he ever watched took place in 1992, when Mitsuharu Misawa defeated Stan Hansen in All Japan for the Triple Crown.
“That was the match for me,” said Takagi. “It showed me how to push past physical limits. To this day, that remains my mantra—mind over body.
“In Japan, the priorities are mental, technique, and body. Technique is very important, and I need to be mentally strong. But of those three elements, the mental aspect is very important to me. And a match against Okada is like a chess match.”
There are few bigger stages in the industry than a New Japan main event against Okada, and the timing is perfect to ignite Takagi’s first world title run in New Japan. In some ways, the industry needs Takagi to emerge victorious. A win illustrates that it is possible to take a different pathway to the top of New Japan, and it also creates an extremely fascinating landscape with him as champion.
Takagi is a machine in the ring, and his rise feels both natural and organic. His own history encompasses so much of the New Japan style; he is hard-hitting and hard-working in the ring, and he hits harder and works harder than his peers. This is also a chance to see Takagi’s devastating Pumping Bomber against Okada’s famed Rainmaker.
I use the ropes and my whole body, so my Pumping Bomber is more powerful than the Rainmaker,” said Takagi. “Okada is about to experience it many times.”
The first half of 2021 has been full of brilliant matches for Takagi. Now he is presented with the opportunity of his career, a chance to deliver a crowning moment in Osaka Jo Hall at Dominion.
“My fingers are clinging onto the cliff, but I can climb to the top only if I defeat Okada,” said Takagi. “This is must-win. I don’t know what will happen to me if I lose. Maybe no more title matches, maybe it prevents from competing in the G1 later this year.
“I need some luck, and I have been praying. This is my opportunity to become the top of New Japan.”
Justin Barrasso can be reached at JBarrasso@gmail.com. Follow him on Twitter @JustinBarrasso.
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